Upon completion of a three-loss regular season, Kurt Ehrensbeck delivered a message to his Harpursville basketball team.
“I said to the girls, ‘There are only seven games left that anyone can play. You win seven games, you’re a state champion. Everybody’s 0-0.’ We just tried to get rid of that baggage.”
Said baggage came in the form of back-to-back January losses, a Midstate Athletic Conference championship string snapped at four, and a lapse into a bit too much “I” and not enough “We.”
Turns out, this skilled musician who plays about any wind instrument — just keep the violin hidden — struck a chord with his crew.
Off went the Hornets on a six-game win streak, bouncing one state-ranked team after another on their way to the program’s second Class C state championship game in a three-season span.
For his contributions to a 20-4 season that concluded with a No. 2 state ranking, Ehrensbeck is recognized as Girls Coach of the Year by members of the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Elmira Star-Gazette and Ithaca Journal sports staffs.
After shifting to the girls’ bench after 12 years coaching junior varsity boys, Ehrensbeck has a 183-77 record. Especially fruitful have been the past five seasons, which have brought a 99-15 record and two Section 4 championships to go with the four MAC titles.
“We have a lot more kids who play basketball all the time than we did, say, eight years ago,” he said. “Success definitely breeds that. We’ve got a lot of kids out playing.”
This winter did not appear headed for the desired outcome when those consecutive January setbacks were followed by a second loss to Unatego on Feb. 7.
“We ran through a stage where we had five kids on the court and each one was trying to win the game on her own,” said Ehrensbeck, who at one point compared a fist to an open hand — “This is a lot stronger than this. If you get all five working together, then we’re a lot stronger.”
Said scoring and rebounding leader Miranda Drummond: “We just knew that’s not how we played, that’s not us. We just got our heads back into it.”
As meaningful, Ehrensbeck gave the offense a makeover to involve more people.
“A lot of people wouldn’t do that. But I found something, we tried it and it worked great,” he said. “People were locking us up for a while, giving us trouble. So I looked at some stuff I had and found something … We just decided we were going to make a change and the girls bought in, they were all for it.”
The Hornets were led by a 1-2 of 22-per-game scorer Drummond, a junior, and 17-per-gamer Savannah Murray. And call it a most-pleasant bonus that the senior point guard and likely valedictorian — Murray — are one and the same. Sophomore Shelby Medovich emerged as the season progressed, and the remainder of the cast warmed to their roles.
The result was progression from the No. 6 seed to open Section 4 play to a state-playoff appearance to a return to the title game. A significant boost along the way, as the coach viewed it, was that second loss to Unatego, absorbed Feb. 7 — “That really ticked them off, made them angry.
“The other impetus was, once we saw the bracket, they saw who they’d face if they got to the Arena. It’s a good motivator when you see, at least potentially, you’re going to see two teams you lost to this year and one who dealt your only loss last year (Elmira Notre Dame). Then, get to the Arena, the girls were fired up.”
Ehrensbeck attributes the program’s success in recent years in part to a commitment to man-to-man defense– “Once we started doing that and I started trusting it through good and bad, we became a much more aggressive team both offensively and defensively.
“We had to teach the kids to be strong and to rebound and to be this and that because we’re undersized, but that helped elevate the program. The kids love it. I think they truly love playing man-to-man. And it really helped our offense when we went man-to-man.”
Also helping has been an open-door policy with his players.
“I’m not averse to the players giving me input, I ask them all the time,” he said. “I’ll ask during timeouts. They’re the ones out there. I think I’ve learned to trust them more.”